Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Sep 18, 2008 1:57 pm 
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Low life brutality and sleazy aspirations in a reign of terror

The protagonist of this film from Chile set in 1978 Santiago at the height of Augusto Pinochet's reign of terror is a murderer and petty thief whose only goal in life is to dance like John Travolta's character Tony Manero in Saturday Night Fever. It's already a year later, but Fever's still playing and Raul (Alfredo Castro) goes to watch in an empty theater, repeating Travolta's lines with a heave accent and mimicing his arm gestures when he dances. Raul is the lead dancer, if it makes any sense to say that, in a shabby cantina where an older woman, a younger woman, his middle-aged girlfriend, and a youth all seem to adore him even though he is tired and fifty-two and can't get an erection any more. Outside it's a quietly terrifying world where soldiers patrol the streets in open trucks with rifles raised and plainclothes agents stop people at random and you can get shot for being out of place or having political fliers.

Early on Raul beats an old woman he's just taken home after she's been mugged. He seems to have killed her, just to get her little color TV. He kills again, each time without any qualms, to get something. He smashes the cantina stage floor and is bargaining with a dealer in loose building materials for glass bricks to make the stage floor like the movie disco, lit from below. He also wants to compete for "Tony Manero of Chile" on a little TV contest show.

At times Larrain's film seems crude and clumsy, but it's nonetheless hard to get out of your head. Obviously Raul's behavior is a metaphor for the morally bankrupt-from-the-start Pinochet regime and the film does an excellent job of conveying the absolute sleaziness of absolutely everything--a terrible world pushed into existence by the CIA and perhaps now similarly dominated by slick new US commercial products like the Travolta picture. Just as Raul will kill to get his pseudo-disco floor effect (which is totally shoddy), the others on his little neighborhood dance team will betray each other to stay in good with the despicable regime. Raul walks away from his heinous crimes with no fear of capture; the regime is too busy perpetrating its own crimes and its own terror to be bothered with him.

The concentration on the goings and comings of Raul gives the picture unity, and the little cantina crew has a classic quality. This is down-market, black-humor Fellini. Wilma (Elsa Poblete) runs the place. She claims to adore Raul and want to run away to him (to where?). He's stuck with Cony (Amparo Noguera), but now prefers her young, possibly pregnant daughter Pauli (Paola Lattus). A willing helper but potential threat is the young man in the group, Goyo (Hector Morales), who is involved in anti-Pinochet activities, but also wants to compete in the tacky TV talent contest for the Tony Manero prize against Raul. Raul sees to that, in the crudest and sleaziest manner possible.

One day Raul goes to the movie to see Saturday Night Fever and it's been replaced by Grease. You can bet there's hell to pay for the projectionist. It feels like the movie will stoop to anything, but then, so would a dictator. The raw, hand-held camera work helps maintain the down-and-dirty intensity, as does faded, dingy-looking color. As Leslie Felprin notes in the Variety review, the camera follows around Raul as doggedly as the Dardennes have done in some of their films, but without any of the humanism or positive endings the Dardennes would provide. The action has a picaresque quality that makes it seem plausible: you just watch in mild horror to see what happens next. To top it all off, Alfredo Castro, in the brave and haunting lead performance, looks a lot like Al Pacino--a Pacino who hasn't been prettied up and will never see a fat paycheck.

This is Pablo Larrain's second feature, and a selection of the New York Film Festival of 2008. It was part of the Directors Fortnight series at Cannes this year. Theatrical opening in France December 17.

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